FROM THE EDITOR
The Way of Suffering
You might be familiar with the well-known song, "The Via Dolorosa," or the Way of Suffering, referring to the lonely path our Messiah had to walk while carrying his own torture stake to the place where he would be executed.
We understand that our Savior had to die for our sins. At least, we acknowledge it to be so. It may not be possible to truly understand all the implications of the crucifixion while we still possess these limited human brains.
But do we ever stop to consider, other than at Passover, the "Suffering Savior," as some have termed him? Although His life was filled with purpose and joy -- especially at the prospect of immortal, eternal life in heaven with the Father (John 17:5) -- he also suffered many emotional trials in this life. Rejected for a time by his own family (see Mark 3:21; John 7:5), taunted and jeered by religious leaders and irreligious countrymen, pressed on all sides by people who wanted a favor or a free meal rather than God's precious truth, our Savior indeed suffered some of the pains of this life. The death of Joseph, his step-father, isn't recorded in scripture, but this must have been a sorrowful time for the young Messiah. The death of Lazarus was recorded in scripture, and the fact that "Jesus wept" (John 11:35).
Yes, he suffered. "From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day" (Matthew 16:21, NASB). At the Last Supper, "He said to them, 'I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer'" (Luke 22:15).
Isaiah told us that "He [the future Messiah] was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" (Isaiah 53:3-4). Psalm 22 shares some of the feelings he experienced while being tortured and executed, including the poignant phrase, "But I am a worm, and not a man, a reproach of men, and despised by the people" (Psalm 22:6).
THE DISCIPLES ALSO SUFFERED
Of course, Jesus was not the only one who had to endure indignities and problems. The disciples suffered many things, as well. For example, after the apostles were imprisoned and flogged, "they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ" (Acts 5:41-42).
Later on, the resurrected Savior struck down Saul of Tarsus and began to convert him into the man we know as Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. The risen Lord sent Ananias to restore Saul's sight, but Ananias was reluctant to go until he heard, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake" (Acts 9:15-16). Paul suffered a number of indignities and life-threatening crises. He later wrote about his experiences: "in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches" (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
And yet, in spite of it all, Paul and his companions were able to keep the physical discomforts and threatening situations in the proper perspective. Notice what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many" (2 Corinthians 1:3-11, NIV).
In another place, Paul wrote: "But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:7-11, NASB).
WE ALSO MUST SUFFER
Have we considered that we might also be called on to enter "the fellowship of his sufferings"? Should we expect to escape the pain and suffering experienced by previous generations of the ekklesia? It isn't likely.
"The Spirit [it]self bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:16-18).
Have we been called on to suffer as children of God, heirs of God? For many of us, it would appear so. But remember that if we suffer with Christ, it is to bring us to a point where we can be glorified with him!
We can talk about being persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matthew 5:10), or losing friends or opportunities because of our religious beliefs. But have we come to the point of suffering?
"For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me" (Philippians 1:29-30).
How do we suffer for his sake? Have any of us been martyred for our faith? In centuries past, yes. Today, martyrdom and enslavement in various places around the world continue at an appalling rate for those who profess Christ. But for believers in many countries, we are not being called on to make the ultimate sacrifice very often. It is prophesied for the future, however.
In the meantime, our suffering takes more subtle forms: we and our children are ostracized by our peers because of our "different" way of life. Job opportunities pass us by because there are certain things we won't do. Family, marriage and personal relationships are often not what they should be. Sometimes we just don't feel as if we are succeeding in our daily struggle to walk in the Way of God. Those who looked for God in corporate church organizations or strong religious leaders are dismayed when they don't find Him there. Many of us are experiencing problems in our lives as never before! Some of us don't know which way to turn! We are fast approaching the end of our rope!
But is that really suffering? God has been most merciful to us in this century, because most of what we consider to be persecution for our faith is merely an inconvenience. After all, "You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin" (Hebrews 12:4).
No, we aren't yet suffering in the same way as the apostles and followers of Messiah did in the first century or two. From this comparison, we should be able to recognize that, and be grateful. But by our own standards, we are, indeed, suffering as a direct result of trying to live in this Way.
Suffering is part of our lot as followers of the Messiah. Paul wrote to Timothy: "Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, or of me His prisoner; but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day" (2 Timothy 1:8-12).
Not only are the leaders, the apostles and teachers, subjected to suffering, but the rest of the Body, the members of the ekklesia, are also likely to suffer for their faith. "And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12).
Yes, many of us have found that persecution can come pretty much automatically! Why is that?
If we have seen the value in pursuing this Way of life, and wish to continue in this Way for the remainder of our lives, enduring to the end, then we need to develop the spiritual muscle to fight for this Way of life, to defend it against those who oppose it, to be able to withstand opposition and pressure (even from those we love) who would tell us that we are foolish to follow God. Does this take strength, character, courage? Of course it does! Does building up any physical muscle (or character trait) take work, and sometimes pain, to make the muscle (or character trait) grow and become strong? Of course it does! Is it always a pleasant or easy process? Of course not! When you have exercised or physically trained to the point of exhaustion, and you drop from sheer weariness, you have gotten benefit from your efforts, but how do you feel? Your body is telling you that you're suffering!
And, as the entire human body suffers pain if one of its parts is injured, so we as the Body of Christ feel pain (or we ought to feel pain) if any of our members are hurting. "And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it" (1 Corinthians 12:26).
OTHERS THROUGHOUT THE BIBLE
A brief look at the history of God's work throughout time shows us that most of the Bible heroes suffered during their lifetimes, not only for their own strengthening, but so that we may learn from their examples.
For instance, Job was subjected to intense trials, all the while maintaining his integrity. As it turned out, God was using Satan as a tool to strengthen and establish Job, while teaching Job some valuable lessons in the process.
Moses, after spending his first 40 years in a rather soft life, suffered a loss of prestige and position (and a radical "career change") by spending the next 40 years in the wilderness as a fugitive and a lowly shepherd; then he continued his struggle during the last 40 years of his life by leading Israel through the wilderness. "By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward" (Hebrews 11:24-26).
Samson, a powerful judge of Israel, suffered the humiliation of being captured by the Philistines, who gouged out his eyes and made him a slave (Judges 16:21).
Elijah feared what he would suffer at the hands of Jezebel, as he ran for his life (1 Kings 19:1-4).
Many of the prophets didn't escape trials and persecutions, either. "As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord" (James 5:10). We can picture scenes of Jeremiah in the cistern up to his armpits in mud (Jeremiah 38), and other ridiculous insults God's servants have had to endure.
Reflecting on the lives of any of the Bible heroes (several of whom are listed in Hebrews 11) shows that none of them had an easy life! "... others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground" (Hebrews 11:35-38). We can't escape the conclusion that being a follower of God, rather than a follower of this world's ways, leads to hardship. None of us is immune from difficulties in life. That includes our Savior Himself.
WHY DID CHRIST SUFFER?
But why would Jesus need to suffer in His human life? Wouldn't it be suffering enough simply to be a human? And yet, our Savior suffered many things in this life. Why?
"But we ... see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. ... For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted" (Hebrews 2:9-10, 18).
Is this of benefit to us? "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:14-16).
"In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 5:7-10).
We should learn from the experiences of Christ set down for us in scripture. After all, "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps" (1 Peter 2:21).
The things our Messiah suffered served to make him perfect, or complete, or mature! Can it be that the things we must suffer as Christians might also serve to make us mature, complete Christians? That same Messiah told us to become perfect, or complete, as the Father is (Matthew 5:48)! Would suffering trials and persecutions throughout our lives help us to achieve maturity and completeness?
Our Savior suffered for some very important reasons: "Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate" (Hebrews 13:12). "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit" (1 Peter 3:18). "...fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). All the suffering and heartache our Savior could have experienced was as nothing compared to the joy of being seated in heavenly power, ultimately to have countless resurrected children of God with him, inhabiting eternity!
WHAT ABOUT US?
Then, what is the purpose of our suffering? Should we learn any lessons from Christ's suffering, or that of those who have gone before us in ages past?
"We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. This is a plain indication of God's righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeedyou are suffering" (2 Thessalonians 1:3-5).
Paul says we are suffering for the kingdom of God, that we may enter God's kingdom, both in the future resurrection and in His rulership over our lives today. (See the article, "What You May Not Have Known About the Kingdom of God.") If we endure the hardships and suffering that come our way, remaining faithful and loyal to our Father, He will consider us worthy of His reigning over us, and bringing us to the place where we will reign with Him!
We need to learn lessons from the hardships the apostles suffered for the sake of the early church, and from the deprivation faced by many leaders and teachers of the ekklesia through the ages, and by the individual members of the Body. By comparison, our lot has not been all that bad, after all.
"Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. It is a trustworthy statement: for if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; If we endure, we shall also reign with Him" (2 Timothy 2:8-12).
One of the things we might be called on to endure in this life is unjust persecution, banishment, or just being thought of as evil, simply because we are followers of this Way. "They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me" (John 16:2-3, NIV).
"For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously" (1 Peter 2:19-23).
"But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong" (1 Peter 3:14-17).
Can we learn other lessons from either our own suffering or from Christ's? "Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God" (1 Peter 4:1-2). Peter is talking about us here!
"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God. For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right" (1 Peter 4:12-19).
Indeed, it is God's will that we go through life experiences that will strengthen us, not only for the tough times ahead, but so that we will be appropriate vessels in the service of God forever. "Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things [sin] he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work" (2 Timothy 2:20-21). (See also Romans 9; 1 Thessalonians 4.)
Our Messiah actually learned lessons from the things he suffered while a human here on earth. What he learned has become a valuable part of how he and our Father deal with us, as children and as humans. We have a High Priest who understands our infirmities. We have a Savior in heaven who has suffered, feet on the ground, hands in the dirt, as we mere mortals have suffered. He knows our weaknesses, and he gives us his strength (Philippians 4:13)! And he knows that, once we have learned the lessons we need to learn, we will be much more malleable as clay in the Potter's hands.
Some of us are walking our own Via Dolorosa. We aren't being led to Calvary to be crucified, but we are suffering on-going health problems, marriage and family problems, financial problems, confusion over religion, unchristian behavior on the part of people we had known and loved, even a sense of being cut off from God!
Because of the joy set before us, we too can endure all things! Whatever your fiery ordeal is, it is God's will that you learn and grow from the experience!
Some of our suffering comes in the form of natural consequences of our actions, so we may need to stop and re-evaluate how we live our lives, or the things we are doing. Sometimes, God is taking a direct hand in our lives and giving us a well-deserved spanking, to get us to wake up and stop making whatever mistake we have been making! And, as we have often heard, "All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness" (Hebrews 12:11). "...you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, 'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.' It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?" (verses 5-7).
We must also consider the end-result of this discipline and training. After we have suffered in this life, what will be the result? "The Spirit [it]self bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. ... And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:16-23, 28)!
There is a brighter tomorrow. There is a wonderful world tomorrow. We still look forward to the time when our Savior will return, setting foot on this good green earth again (Revelation 19:11-16; Zechariah 14:4), with ten thousands of His saints (Jude 14-15), and put a stop to Satan and his reckless deception of human affairs and nations (Revelation 20:1-3). We look forward to a time when all tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4). We look forward to the conquering of the final enemy, death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Like Abraham, we seek a city whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:8-10)!
These are the very reasons why we are allowed to suffer in our Christian life -- in order to enter the kingdom of God! Our Father, the Master Potter, has determined, in His love and wisdom, that we must suffer certain things in order to obtain the goal, and so that we may grow and mature into children in whom He will be pleased!
Finally, then, "Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen" (1 Peter 5:8-11).
It may be that this is the time when God is perfecting us, as if in a refiner's fire (Malachi 3:2-3). If so, after He has seen us make progress in our spiritual maturity, He would then confirm our faithfulness to Him, then strengthen us through His Spirit, and finally establish us as His dear children. God Himself will do this mighty work in us, and will see it through! "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. ... for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 1:6; 2:13).